A review of The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Prince of Mist
By Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Paperback, 3 May 2010, ISBN 978192165635, rrp AU$22.95

A lot of young adult books focus on a canny thirteen year old – someone wise, sensitive and naive coming to terms with the illogical and intense world of adults. As parent to a 13 year old, I understand exactly what the appeal is. It’s a powerful age, with one foot in the world of childhood and one in the world of adults. Sophistication and innocence sit side by side in tenuous balance. Zafon’s hero Max Carver fits the bill perfectly. He’s thoughtful, intelligent, careful and unsettled. It is June 1943 and Max’s watchmaker father moves the family away from their city home to a beach house on the coast to escape the war. Though Max had been expecting it, the news was shattering, unearthing his sense of security.

Things only get worse when Max’s sister Irina picks up a stray black cat, the station clock in their new town starts ticking backwards, they move into a house riddled with past tragedies and a garden full of strange statues around a terrifying clown that appears to move. Although The Prince of Mist predates Zafón’s two bestselling novels The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, it is full of the same intensity – the co-mingling of realism, magic, and terror. The story is compelling from the start, propelled by the mystery of a boy that Max meets in his new town, and a series of hints that build to produce a frightening and satisfying thriller that goes well beyond the plotline.

There are few things scarier than an evil clown, but coupled with a broken promise, a lost child, black and white film reels, a shipwreck, bad dreams, and a series of slightly Satanic symbols, the story takes on a serious resonance. As with the later books, the writing is rich, full of atmospheric descriptions that evoke the setting and create a mood:

The southern beach, on the other side of the town, was shaped like a vast crescent moon. Beyond the strip of white sand the shoreline was covered with shiny pebbles smoothed by the sea. Behind the beach, rising almost vertically, loomed a wall of craggy cliffs, on top of which stood the lighthouse, dark and solitary. (58)

The book ends rather too lightly after the intensity that precedes it, leaving the reader feeling a bit cheated. It’s almost, thought not quite, a happy ending, which doesn’t fit the darkness of the book, but that’s a minor flaw in a book so beautifully written and with so many poetic details that go well beyond the engaging plot. Max’s first glimpse of the ocean, for example:

Max found himself gazing at an endless expanse of ethereal light, the electric blue of the sea shimmering beneath the midday sun, imprinting itself on his retina like a supernational apparition. The ashen light that perpetually drowned the old city already seemed like a distant memory. He felt as if he had spent his entire life looking at the world through a black and white lens and suddenly it sprung into life, in full, luminous colour he could almost touch. (7)

Other characters like Max’s quirky inventor father, his lovelorn older sister, or Roland’s grandfather Victor Kray are well drawn, leaving the reader wanting far more. The Prince of Mist is a fast paced book that can be read in a few hours, but which will stay with the reader for far longer. Younger readers might be disturbed by the evil clown or the ultimate denouement. Older readers and adults will, however, enjoy every moment of this heady, complex story that combines gothic horror with detective mystery, psychological complexity, a touch of romance, and deep linguistic richness.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.

Article first published as Book Review: The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon on Blogcritics.